Monthly Archives: November 2014

Advent, Worship and Outreach

And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)

The Season of Advent is a wonderful, historically rich time of preparation, contemplation and celebration revolving around the coming of Christ in human flesh.  As the fulfillment of prophecy, and the height of redemptive activity, God intervenes in the course of human events to restore what was lost due to Adam’s disobedience.  For centuries, the Church followed the liturgical calendar and considered the themes of the Advent Season, but for many this practice was long ago forsaken.  Advent is, in fact, the beginning of the Church year.

Let us consider Advent and how it might become special once again.  Specifically, how can we utilize the Season of Advent and its themes to both regain some historical connection with the ancient church, and help our neighbors see the reality that Christ is the answer to life and renewal?  How can we allow the richness of this season to once again take an important place among the commercialization of the holiday?

It seems to me that many Christian groups, by distancing themselves from historical traditions, have done a disservice to the Body of Christ.  We could also make a case that some in more staid traditions have lost a connection with history and its traditions, giving in to more modern leanings.  Certainly, we are warned by Paul to beware of the “traditions of men” (Colossians 2:8), however, if we are honest with ourselves we will notice that there are many traditions in which we participate that are healthy and God-honoring.  By reviving the celebration of the Advent Season, we can redevelop a particularly meaningful tradition.

“Advent” simply means “coming.”  The Season of Advent celebrates the coming of Christ into the world – God becoming man and dwelling among us.  Throughout this season there are themes that can be followed week by week to help us reflect upon differing aspects of His incarnation.  The season begins the Sunday after Thanksgiving, includes four Sunday services, and ends with a Christmas Eve or Christmas Day service.  The themes of Advent may be described as follows:

ADVENT-CANDLESAdvent week 1: Vigilant waiting for the birth of Christ – This week focuses on remembering the experience of waiting.  The Israelites waited for centuries for the Messiah to appear, and the promise of His coming was first heard by Adam and Eve.  In reality, the human race waited for the Messiah almost from the beginning.

Advent week 2: Personal preparation for the birth of Christ – The focus in this week is on personal evaluation.  There is a reason that Christ came to dwell among us, and that reason is one that is found within each of us as sinners in need of a Savior.  Here we consider our need for Him in a deeply personal way.

Advent week 3: The Joy of our waiting – The most celebrative of the Sundays of Advent, we celebrate with great expectation the day of the Lord’s coming.  We celebrate His love for us and the wondrous work of salvation He comes to accomplish.  Our celebration in community brings a special character to worship on this day.

Advent week 4: The incarnation of the Word in the womb of the virgin Mary – The mystery of the incarnation is that of God dwelling among men.  He comes to us, and only in the beauty and grandeur of that action can we be drawn to Him.  The incarnation is not a doctrine to be ignored in this important season.

Christmas Eve or Day: Celebrating His birth – Our waiting is over.  He has come, and our waiting for this day has come!  As faith communities and as families, we share with each other the fulfillment of God’s promises in Christ.

There are many ways that each of these themes can be explored, and in doing so we can reclaim some awareness of why the life of Christ is so significant.  This would be a worthwhile endeavor for those who knowHim, as well as those who need Him.  For example, we might take each theme and simply as a question each week to explore the theme:

Week 1 – Why was the waiting for the Christ necessary?  Why was it so important?

Week 2 – What are we preparing for?  How do we prepare ourselves?

Week 3 – What is this “joy” that we can have in Christ?

Week 4 – Incarnation means what?  And why does it matter?

Christmas – How does Christ fulfill our needs?  (Sin and renewal)

Coming back to these themes each year allows us to build a common experience for all generations.  Exploring the themes in different ways will help us find great depth in the Person of Christ and His work.  Re-telling the story of the goodness of Creation, the tragedy of the Fall, and the Redemption in Christ will give opportunities for discussion for those who hear the story and consider its implications for their own lives.

There are many resources available online to help create these services.  Some have altered themes, different themes, ideas for music (both traditional and contemporary), and other creative thoughts.  Do some exploring, and re-discover for yourself the joy of the Season of Advent.


(Original Post on Nov. 28, 2013 at the Worldview Church:

A Worship View from the Pew

In a visit to a local church I was interested to see the basic stage setup that many churches have adopted in which the Worship Band (some call it a Praise Band) was playing a live Prelude.  As the service began, a group of singers joined the group (commonly referred to as a Worship Team, or Praise Team, or Praise Vocalists if they are distinguished from the band.  It is a misnomer to call them “Praise prompters” – but that’s a topic for another article!).  The whole ensemble began to lead a series of choruses and hymns – some familiar, some not so familiar – and sought to draw the congregation into the worship atmosphere.

There was a problem, however, in that the whole group sounded as if they were playing behind a wall, or in another room.  There was sound, but it didn’t seem to be in the right place.  The sound was there, but it wasn’t within the congregation.  It wasn’t present.  What I mean by being present is the sense that the music (or even someone speaking) is in your presence – right with you.  You don’t have to strain to hear them, and they don’t have to shout or raise their voice.

In the Sound Booth, this is referred to as clarity.  How clear are the sounds that the congregation is hearing?  Does the hearer understand the spoken word?  Is it muffled, or distant?  Can the singers be heard above the music, or does the music drown them out?  The sound person’s goal is to set all of those knobs and buttons in such a way that the hearer experiences a natural sound (though amplified).  Sounds that are distant, or muffled, are good for special effects, but should not be the norm.

In a previous article, I spoke to the issue that one of the Worship Leader’s primary responsibilities is to gather distractions to himself (or herself) in order to allow the congregation to worship undistracted.  The sound system, and the way it sounds, may be one of the most critical areas for this to happen.  If the sound is poor, people are distracted and you’ll hear comments or see the glares back toward the sound board.  If the sound is good, and clarity is pure, then most likely no one will ever say anything and the sound person is the unsung hero of the day.  There is not much room in between.

Going back to my visit to the local church, I had a theory.  Maybe I was sitting in a “dead spot” in the sanctuary.  One of those black holes of sound where nothing sounds good no matter what the sound person changes.  My thought was to visit again and sit in a different area, which I did.  And my theory was wrong.  Same problem, different seat.  I did notice, however, that during the showing of a video presentation that the sound cleared up and the muffled sense was gone.  But, when the pastor began speaking, he was there – but not there.  The “muffling” had returned.

As I pondered this situation (well, as I was distracted by it), I determined that the problem was the amount of sound between the main speakers (those facing the congregation) and the monitor speakers (those facing the people on stage – so they can monitor their own sound).  The monitor speakers were what I was hearing the most, and that’s what gave me that distant, muffled feeling.  The musicians and the pastor were not present to me (and the rest of the congregation) because the sound was going at them, not at us!!

My contention here is that although there may have only been a few who could figure out why it sounded the way that it did, in actuality it affected the entire congregation because it affected the clarity of what they were hearing.  Subconsciously, and even consciously, people get frustrated when they can’t hear or understand what’s going on.  They’ll read the bulletin, write their check for the offering, or wander off into a daydream, but they won’t be attentive to what’s happening.

Although the sound person is responsible to be sure that there is good clarity, it is the Worship Leader’s responsibility to help the sound person understand what that means.  Especially when our sound operators are, for the most part, volunteers doing their best.  The reason for this is that the Worship Leader is, overall, responsible for the complete atmosphere of worship.  If the sound operation is causing distractions then the Worship Leader should seek to improve that.

I would suggest some training, and not necessarily at an expensive 3-day Sound Technician’s conference.  There are probably other churches nearby that have more experienced sound operators.  Try the local high school, as they may have some students that could help.  There are also many stores that sell sound equipment that can train your sound operators.  (Just don’t let them sell you a bunch of new equipment, use what you have first and then upgrade as your current equipment is used to its fullest potential – and as your sound operators become more experienced.)

In my recent experience all that needed to happen was for the band and singers to be turned up in the main speakers.  The sound level (volume) would have gone up, but there was room for that to happen and still retain a good deal of comfort for the listener.  In other situations the monitor level must be lowered so that the balance is more appropriate, and in such cases the overall volume level drops (often to a more comfortable level).

The fact is live sound is difficult, and it will not sound like your home stereo.  Seek for consistent improvement in clarity so that the congregation can have the best opportunity to hear God’s Word, unhindered by wires, knobs and buttons.  This is the point, after all.



The Role of the Worship Leader

In each church someone fulfills the role of Worship Leader.  Who is that in your congregation?  A paid staff person?  A volunteer?  The Pastor?  An associate Pastor?  Regardless, the individual has a vital part to play in the unfolding of the corporate worship setting within any congregation.  Let’s look at some ideas about what this person does.

First, there is one theory circulating that turns the title “Worship Leader” on its head and suggests that this person is the “Lead worshiper.”  In other words, it is assumed that this person should have a heart and attitude of worship both individually and in front of the corporate body – this qualifies him or her to then lead the worship of the congregation.

Second, there is the theory that the “Worship Leader” is really the “Song Leader.”  Within this realm the person only leads the songs, especially since the rest of the elements of the service are not really considered “worship.”  Other individuals handle other aspects of the service (i.e., announcements, Pastoral prayer, offertory, Scripture reading, etc.).

Third, some suggest that the “Worship Leader” is the Pastor.  Why?  Well…because he’s the Pastor.  The Pastor’s primary responsibility is the planning and execution of the Sunday Service, so regardless of who else does the planning, song leading, etc. the Pastor is the “Worship Leader.”

Fourth, how about the idea that the “Worship Leader” is a Team?  The expressed purpose of this approach is to avoid drawing attention to any single person.  A “Worship Team” is developed to facilitate and lead the worship, as well at times to help with the planning.  This also allows for shared responsibility.

Fifth, another possibility is that the “Worship Leader” is actually the “Worship Planner.”  He or she is responsible to plan the various elements of the service, but does not lead the congregation in any way on Sunday.  This allows for a wide use of gifted individuals in the leading of the services.

Sixth, in some primarily denominational settings, the Organist is the “Worship Leader.”  There may be someone up front “leading” the songs, but he’s following the Organist – not vice versa.  In this model the Organist segues between elements of the service, sets the tempo of the songs, and can even help the Pastor realize that he’s gone too long by moving to his seat at the organ at the appointed time!

Seventh…Well, OK, I won’t go on.  I think you might have gotten my point – the role of the Worship Leader is neither well-defined nor commonly understood.  If we were to think through each of the above “theories” we could actually make a case that there is merit for each one.  The “Worship Leader” should be a worshiper, and often their primary activity is leading songs.  He is often the Pastor, who at least sets the spiritual tone for the service.  In some settings a Team approach works great, and sometimes the planner of the services is gifted in planning, but not in leading a group in public.  There are even times that the Organist, or another musician, should take the lead role in the service as is fitting for the moment.  All of these ideas work, in the appropriate setting and circumstances.

Let me share another idea with you about the role of the Worship Leader.  One of the Worship Leader’s primary roles is to gather distractions.  That’s right – gather distractions.  I can hear you now, “What is this guy talking about?  He’s gone off the deep end.”  Just keep reading and I’ll explain.

In a previous article I discussed the importance of transitions in worship.  Transitioning from song to song, song to prayer, prayer to sermon, sermon to song, etc. can make or break the atmosphere of worship.  Muff up a transition and the congregation can lose focus.  Fall apart moving from one song to another and the joy of the moment is replaced with frustration and embarrassment.

Gathering distractions is another form of dealing with transitions.  A broken transition is a distraction to the congregation.  A Worship Leader must anticipate this and do all that is humanly possible to avoid distractions that will interrupt the congregation’s experience.  He must gather the distractions to himself.  In many ways that means the Worship Leader is full of distractions in order to provide for the congregation to have few distractions.

Well, how is this done?  Practice – especially for the musicians.  Spend time rehearsing prior to the service (during the week, on Saturday, etc.).  Another way is to plan ahead and visualize the service before it happens.  Will Mrs. Smith be able to get up to the piano without tripping on those cords?  Do the Deacons know when the Offering will be taken and do they have people ready to do that?  Is it too warm or cold in the sanctuary?  Does the choir have enough time to sit down between their two songs, or should they remain standing?  Can the congregation hear the speaker and singers well enough?  How’s the lighting?

I could go on and on, but be sure to ask questions.  A Team approach works well for this in that some individuals will see a problematic transition (distraction point) and the group can solve it before it even happens.

I have used this technique of visualizing the service before it happens over and over again with great success.  The more complicated the service, the more time spent visualizing.  I have found that it helps to go into the sanctuary (or gym, or cafeteria, or wherever you do worship) and “see” the event happening.  I’m not suggesting some mystical, new age vision-seeking.  It’s more like rehearsing an important conversation before it even happens.  What are you going to say?  How should you say it?  Where should you be when you say it?  Should you be on your knees, or looking into her eyes?  You know what I mean.

Well, no matter what, the role of the Worship Leader is an important one.  Pray for that person in your congregation as he or she plays an important role in corporate worship to facilitate an atmosphere that is beneficial to the worship and praise of God, and the proclamation of His Word.


The Entertainment Trap for Worship!


Retro TVAs I talk with Pastors, worship leaders and musicians I often hear an underlying thread of concern as churches seek to be relevant in their communities.  The concern can be easily phrased in a question:  “How do we compete with the entertainment of our society?”  Sometimes the question is even more direct:  “How does our church compete with bigger churches and ministries down the street or in our city?”  These questions reveal a great deal of pressure felt by planners and leaders of worship services to present a Sunday morning package that is of high quality, musical excellence, flawless timing and addresses up-to-the-minute perspectives on daily life.

The pressure these leaders feel is not unwarranted.  Many individual church-goers regularly complain about the quality of the music, the uninteresting sermons, or that somehow the church is not “meeting the needs” of themselves or their families.  Having just watched the latest movie the night before (or attended a concert, watched the sporting event, or whatever), they leave church to go home and flip on the television to watch football, a weekly animated TV series, and multi-million dollar 30-second commercials.

It’s hard for the church to compete with that, or even keep up.  Faced with declining giving as the economy continues to struggle, many church leaders wonder how they will make mortgage payments, pay the utilities and still keep their staff members fully employed.  There is just no way to inject the time, energy and finances needed into the worship and music program to even come close to the competition.

So—what should the church do?  My answer may surprise you.  I suggest that we don’t bother trying to compete.  We are not, after all, part of the entertainment industry.  We are the church.  I realize that some church services look more like concerts or major productions every week, but let’s not get sidetracked into that discussion.  Let’s admit that we are not part of the entertainment industry and that our goals for Sunday morning are wholly different.

What might some of those goals for worship be?  Putting our heads together, we could probably come up with a pretty good list.  Worshipping and glorifying God would be at the top of the list.  Hearing from the Word through reading and exposition.  Prayer.  Fellowship with one another.  Each of these put the goals of worship in a different perspective than the goals of entertainment.

I would also like to point out some purposes for our worship services that are not often at the forefront.  Like the ones mentioned above, these are not part of our entertainment saturated culture and make the church unique in its role in society.

For example, our worship services should be reflective of the relationships within our church community.  Those people leading worship, singing special music, reading Scripture, calling attention to important weekly events, serving communion, receiving the offering—all of these people are our friends and our family members.  These are our neighbors and co-workers.  They represent the relational aspect of our gathered community for worship.  It is with these people that Paul calls us to unity.  “Put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity.  And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body; and be thankful” (Colossians 3:14-15).

Another purpose is that of service.  We are called as individual members of the body of Christ to serve each other.  That is the whole point of the spiritual gifts that we have received from God.  The gifts have come from His hand, by His will, and are expressly given for us to serve others (1 Corinthians 12:7&11).  Peter sums it up clearly, “As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God” (1 Peter 4:10).

I think we can get the picture just from these examples.  The church is a living organism with a special place in society and in our lives.  We don’t have to compete with the entertainment of the world or other churches because we are about relationships—with God and with other people.  If we view our worship services as extensions of these relationships, then the pressure to compete falls away.  Who else can have personal relationships with the people in our churches except those of us in our churches?


For more of Mark’s writing, see his book list at

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